George Santos’ false claim of being Jewish tells us a lot about American politics

George Santos’ false claim of being Jewish tells us a lot about American politics

Incoming Republican congressman of New York George Santos has falsely claimed to be Jewish, and a descendant of Holocaust survivors to boot! After a New York Times investigation exposed his penchant for self-invention, Santos’ spokesperson initially denied the “defamatory allegations.” Soon thereafter, Santos low-key- admitted to the New York Post that much of his biography is, indeed, fabricated. 

It was all kind of a misunderstanding, he insinuated. What he really meant to say during his successful (and duplicitous) campaign for Congress was that he was “Jew-ish,” not Jewish. Judging by Santos’ actions, being “Jew-ish” means pretending to be a Jew while running for elected office. It means advocating hard-right Republican views on Israel and Iran. It means lighting Hanukkah candles with the Republican Jewish Coalition and then tweeting about it. You know, typical stuff that Jewish-adjacent folks have been doing since the destruction of the Second Temple. 

This disturbing episode exposes some of the really unhealthy ways in which we give religion a pass in public life.

Aside from the staggering hypocrisy of it all, this disturbing episode exposes some of the really unhealthy ways in which we give religion a pass in public life. 

It also reveals a great deal about the worldview of right-wing Jews, who are a minority in the Jewish American community, but not an inconsequential one, including in Santos’ district. They might not have been fond of Santos’ Christian Latino surname, but he won their acceptance by ticking off a checklist of extreme right-wing positions. He was something akin to a Jewish Frankenstein candidate (in Jewish lore, known as a Golem) — stitched together from flinty chunks of conservative policy, MAGA talking points and misinformation algorithmically beloved to the roughly 30% or so of Jewish Americans who vote Republican.

Let’s start with the facts, or in this case the alternative facts, that have been shown to be falsehoods by intrepid reporters at The Forward, among others. No, George Santos’ grandparents didn’t flee Nazi persecution. No, he doesn’t appear to have ever visited Israel. No, he doesn’t have Jewish ancestry. 

No, he didn’t attend CUNY Baruch College (which he, or his handlers, must have imagined was Jewish-sounding enough, though it’s interesting he didn’t identify an actual chartered Jewish institution of higher learning, such as Yeshiva University, as his alma mater). No, he didn’t work at Goldman Sachs or Citigroup (where many non-Jews work, but which Santos perhaps microaggressively thought sounded very Jewish). 

Much has been made about the political incompetence of Democrats in not doing their oppo research on Santos. Shouldn’t they have better vetted their opponent in a redrawn Queens and Long Island district with a sizable Jewish population? 

Perhaps, but I’d like to stress that these Democrats weren’t just up against their own toothlessness. In this country, any substantive discussion about a politician or judge’s sincerely held religious beliefs is a no-fly zone. Let’s recall the Republican outrage machine that surfaced in 2020 during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when some Democrats dared to wonder if Judge Amy Coney Barrett should be questioned about the relation between her personal faith convictions and her jurisprudence.

Herein lies a contradiction that is corroding American democracy. In a supposedly “secular” country we are enjoined to disregard a person’s religious creed when considering their suitability for public office. This is a sound civic principle. Its roots stretch back to the days in which a presidential candidate like John F. Kennedy was attacked for alleged loyalties to the Catholic Church (such accusations were often made of Catholic candidates for office prior to the 1960s). In a famous 1960 speech, Kennedy denounced that sort of thinking. In an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, he declared, we should never judge a candidate by their faith. 

But a principle intended to protect people from religious discrimination has morphed into a shield against fair questions. Some politicians and judges (not just Republicans) will insist on trumpeting their religious identities on the campaign trail and when they eventually serve, but when some journalist or academic expresses curiosity about how their specific faith-based dogmas might influence their specific policy decisions, the question is dismissed as inappropriate. American secularism is ignored, only to then be strategically invoked, and thus weaponized against itself.

American secularism is ignored, only to then be strategically invoked, and thus weaponized against itself.

 The Santos debacle demands a rethinking of how we treat religious claims made by political figures. Perhaps we ought to operate under the following rule of civic engagement: If a candidate invokes their faith on the stump, or in public appearances and writings, then, hell yeah, we have every right to query them about how that will impact their public service. We can ask them hard but fair questions about their theological views and religious identity. With this kind of practice of open interrogation, Santos’ lies might’ve been sniffed out earlier on, or he might’ve been less likely to deceptively use religion as a political asset in the first place. 

George Santos performed a very particular type of Jewish identity to win support from right-wing Jews. With his Christian surname and his loud-and-proud gay identity, Santos lacked some of the classic markers of traditional Jewish identity. So instead he focused on a political script as a work-around. 

He worried aloud about antisemitism in this country (as we all do). Yet he wasn’t worried about the MAGA/White Supremacist/Christian Nationalist kind of Judeophobia — just the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement kind associated with the left. He engaged in that unconditional embrace of right-wing Israeli governments which has become a staple of the modern GOP. He craftily championed former President Donald Trump, praising the disgraced president for being at his “full awesomeness” on Jan. 6. Outrage at left-wing antisemitism, chest-thumping support for ultra-conservative Israeli policies, and selective and slippery support for Donald Trump — this is like the Holy Trinity of today’s Jewish Republicanism! Most of these positions are anathema to most American Jews. Santos may have gravitated toward these opinions in order to gain a credibility with right-wing Jews that he otherwise lacked. (With his lies revealed, the Republican Jewish Coalition has renounced its support for him.)

There’s a reason Kennedy and the mid-century Democrats wanted to keep politics and religion apart. As the Santos saga reveals, the melding of faith and political ideology does great damage to the integrity of the former.

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